A South Asian female warrior, donning traditional Indian wear, carrying a quiver full of arrows on her back is seen pointing an arrow ready to be released in a particular direction. Her face has a mask on, following COVID-19 safety protocols.
This art piece titled Frontline Workers for the Vancouver public art project, was a tribute to our frontline healthcare workers who fought and continue to fight to save lives. Although the warrior woman character was created pre-Pandemic, she got a new life when she was reimagined as a healthcare worker -- the real warriors of our society. It is one of the several pieces of unique and authentic creations that South Asian artist Jag Nagra is the proud creator of.
In a career field as competitive and male dominated as graphic design and illustration, Nagra has quite impressively managed to create a strong presence and identity of her own. As a woman of colour and a part of the LGBTQ community, she has worked with brands like The Vancouver Canucks, Microsoft and Vogue Magazine among many others. In addition, Nagra is the 2021 Feature Artist for the prestigious Indian Summer Festival (ISF).
In an interview with 5X Press, Nagra shared some facts about her collaboration with ISF, what she wants to convey through her art, and how strongly her art is connected to her South Asian roots.
When asked about how her culture has inspired her art, Nagra said that it wasn’t until she worked as the Creative Director for the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective, that she really began integrating her culture into her art.
“It really wasn’t until I started working in Punjabi Market that I started to really feel connected to my Indian roots,” she said.
“Before then, I never created art that reflected my culture. In many ways, I’m finding who I am through this work and it feels really good to be able to draw connections from my queer and South Asian identities.”
Through the same regeneration initiative, she collaborated and got acquainted with ISF, to put up new banners in Punjabi Market. She designed a pair of banners featuring a Phulkari and a Peacock, and Musqueam Artist Debra Sparrow designed a blanket weaving pattern and a sparrow. As ISF’s 2021 Feature Artist, she created a part tiger, part falcon, part horse and part peacock shapeshifter.
For Nagra, it was a dream come true to work for the festival, which celebrates South Asian art and artists in all its glory.
“It was such an honour because many years ago I had attended Indian Summer Festival and I thought to myself that one day I wanted to create art for them. All these years later, the stars aligned perfectly,” said Nagra.
Her work, however, is more than art pieces to look at and marvel. They are also instrumental to her activism for the LGBTQ community and representation.
She is extremely active in matters of community development, and extends her support to causes however she can. Particularly in the South Asian society where individuals are still afraid of coming out due to fear of being shunned for their sexuality, Nagra wants to open up conversations surrounding these topics, using her art as a medium to do that.
“Growing up and even now, there isn’t much representation from the queer South Asian community in mainstream culture,” she said.
“I never saw people who were like me who looked like me when I was younger, so I feel a lot of responsibility to represent those who can’t come out or who can’t speak out.”
But one thing that is apparent in our community, is that it takes a village.
“I’m lucky that I have the support of my entire family, even my uncle and aunt in a small village in India, cousins in Australia; they all know I’m queer [and] married with kids, and are supportive. I have the ability to be open and out and I want to make sure I represent our community.”
As a result of her experiences, Nagra wants to use her art to spark conversations.
“If I can carve a little space for us, which can help create conversations and hopefully make it less scary for people to come out to their families, that’s so important,” she said.
Nagra’s art also strives for equality and compassion and she has created work around important social justice movements and issues. Like any artist, Nagra is an observer, and her artwork absorbs and is inspired by issues that affect humanity in general.
“Through just observing things happening in the world like the fight for Black rights through the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Farmers Protests in India, sometimes the only thing I know how to do is to create art around those themes,” she said.
“I’ve used my platform, however small, to raise money for organizations. And touching on what I talked about earlier about my queer identity, the themes in my art tend to revolve around empowerment and confidence. I’ve created art with a woman dressed in a lehenga covered in art tattoos, or wearing Nike high tops with her Indian outfit. I draw brown skin. It’s important to me that people feel seen through my work.”
For most South Asian kids, we grew up feeling unseen, due to the absence of South Asian representation in media and art. People whose voices and opinions mattered, did not look like us, and hence were the only present parts in art and media representation.
But with artists like Nagra, that dynamic is changing.
Despite the lack of representation in the field now, Nagra feels that there is a lot of competition between South Asian artists, and that is something she wishes to change within the community.
“The South Asian artist community is fairly small in the grand scheme of things. And I think sometimes people feel a sense of competition among other South Asian artists. Personally I don’t think there’s a need for that. I like promoting other artists and supporting them. I think we can all carve our own space and support each other,” she said.
It is pretty rare of a combination to be someone who is a successful, brilliant artist as well as a champion of community development. For me, Nagra represents the warrior she drew for our frontline workers. She might not be a healthcare worker, but she too is blazing her own fierce and fearless path with her art, showing authenticity, fearlessness, inclusivity and compassion.
Roshni is a self-proclaimed Comedy Queen who specializes in laughing at her own jokes. Her hobbies include making people smile, watching movies and analysing them, reading books, practicing yoga (occasionally), hogging on well-cooked biryani and scrolling through dog videos and memes on Instagram. Her love for writing stems from her love for art in general, which is fuelled by her background in theatre. Catch on her instagram at @roshni_rakshit daily, where she regularly shares her experience with movies and occasionally offends people with her political sense of humour.